In many ways Africa is separated into tribes as much or more than countries.
In Tanzania there are over one hundred and twenty separate peoples represented and they often spread beyond the borders of any one country. The political boundaries were drawn fairly recently, and do not necessarily represent the traditional homelands of the various cultures.
In the region we were visiting, the northern part of the country around Mt. Kilimanjaro and the city of Moshi, most all of the people are of the Chagga tribe.
It is a goal of Discover Corps, and especially of our host Mama Simba that, in addition to our work at the school and experiencing the tourist highlights of the area, we feel connected to our surroundings and learn about the culture of the area.
We met with local residents who wished to interact with visiting foreigners in a cultural exchange, with the hope of both sides learning more about each other.
Family is #1
The Chagga are a very family oriented people, and are extremely open in taking about relationships and family dynamics.
Mama Simba had spoken to us about this openness prior to lunch—and explained to us that it could be uncomfortable for people of different backgrounds at times.
We loved that Mama Simba “warned” us – and she added that we weren’t there to change each other, but to learn about each other.
She is adamant and passionate about her cross-cultural exchanges; no one is “coached” on either side about what to say or not to say. If we are faking, we’re not being true to each other.
When our host families arrived, we introduced ourselves one by one.
There was a distinct difference in our narratives, our group tended to talk about our work and student lives, and our hosts spoke about their families.
When one of our team members mentioned she was single, she was prodded to explain she was divorced, then was asked where her husband was—there was much hemming and hawing and blushing…
But, because of Mama Simba’s kind explanation beforehand, we understood that our way of looking at things doesn’t necessarily hinge on right and wrong—and we easily chalked up the questions to societal differences.
In fact, we embraced it.
The Chagga family philosophy extends beyond their borders; they believe that all of humankind is family. That sweet, gentle nosiness brought us all closer together.
We shared our meal with Robert and Andrew, a father and son, and struck up a conversation.
Robert told us he works as an engineer for the Tanzanian Agricultural Ministry in the capital city of Dodoma and his son, Andrew, was just out of university.
Learning About Our Village
Our homebase ambassador, Melinda, shares her village with Veronica
After swapping typical pleasantries and family talk over lunch, we began to feel comfortable and delved into the deeper questions as they led us on a walk through their village of Rau, where we began to get a feel for day-to-day life.
Much of the daily routine has remained in keeping with Chagga tradition.
For example, when we passed the stands selling produce and clothing along the road they were tended by women.
That is typical as it is the custom for women to cook, sew, tend to the home, and do the trading in the marketplace.
Home and Family Life
When we visited Robert’s home we saw more of the traditional Chagga lifestyle.
In the courtyard his mother, wife, and daughter were sewing, preparing food, washing dishes, and grating coconut—practices passed down from generation to generation.
The youngest family member was having quite a time feasting on the tasty remnants left in the shells, sort of the tropical version of licking the cake batter spoon.
Robert’s house was grouped together with those of his uncle’s and brother’s families, each surrounded by a plot of land planted with corn, vegetables, and fruit trees, especially bananas.
Goats, pigs, cattle, and chickens are raised among the crops and fed from the silage.
Groups of farms such as these, have long been the foundation of settlements for the Chagga people.
It was harvest season for corn, so the grain was being stripped and dried for grinding, while the leaves and stalks are kept to feed cattle and hogs.
Having grown up in farm country, David asked about storage of feed for the animals and got into an interesting conversation.
Robert was completely confused by David's question, and as soon as he tried to explain he understood why.
Without thinking he said, “How do you store it for the winter?”
A pretty dumb thing to say standing a stone’s throw from the equator, but it led to David explaining how a large part of farming in a colder climate is involved with planning for winter.
This opened quite a discussion on methods and techniques.
Song and Dance
Coffee has long been a staple and a cash crop for the Chagga, and on one afternoon we had the chance to visit a small coffee grower’s farm.
When we pulled up in our little bus we were once again greeted with song and dance.
The group of traditionally dressed dancers invited us to sit for a moment, and then to join in.
We did our best to mimic the subtle movements, and probably were laughably horrible at it but, as family, we were accepted in the festivities as such. We were lightly teased and given special attention until we got the hang of it.
When the festivities died down a bit, we followed the owner of the farm into a grove of large banana trees.
As we walked he pointed out the squatty bushes growing beneath the trees.
Stopping at a large example, he explained how the plants work together in a copacetic arraignment.
Coffee likes shade, and the banana trees provide it and hold moisture in the soil.
The process is completed when leaves from the banana trees are fed to goats, producing fertilizer for the soil.
The circle of life.
When ripe, the deep red beans of the coffee plant are cleaned, then dried for a day.
The husks are then removed, leaving only the dry inner bean.
Our host tossed some of these into a cast iron pan to roast over an open fire.
In twenty or thirty minutes they were ready and we took turns grinding them in a large wooden mortar and pestle.
David and homebase ambassador, Gladys, show us how it's done!
Next thing we knew we were drinking fresh brewed coffee.
For Veronica, the most captivating part of this field trip was the people around her.
As the drummers and dancers continued to play, the music and revelry drew a small group of curious local children.
Veronica was drawn to them like a bee to a flower.
Shy at first, these cuties ran to hide in the bush until she wooed them with her camera and a promise to playback video snippets of themselves playing.
Soon the game turned into a rollicking good time and friends were called for to join in the fun.
Props were then brought out by the children for more and more dramatic footage.
When it was time to leave, Mama Simba had to drag Veronica away from the children and onto the bus.
More Song and Dance
At homebase the next day we were treated to a wild, upbeat performance by the Kilimanjaro Wizards Arts Group.
This troupe incorporates intricate rhythms on drums and marimba while the dancer’s portray story lines.
A complete hunt was played out before our eyes, the men taking down their prey, celebrating and slaughtering the kill, then eating the flaming internal organs.
Afterwards, the women came to congratulate the men and carry away the butchered meat.
Song and dance was a common thread throughout our activities; it is an integral part of Chagga life.
Whether it is part of a planned performance such as the two we experienced, or completely spontaneous as it was many other times, it always ended up with everyone invited to participate.
Jumping up to dance is well outside of our usual day-to-day norm, especially for David, who has always compared his dancing skills to those of a circus bear balancing on a ball.
But after only a few days he learned to let go of his inhibitions and join in on the joyful gyrations.
Embarrassment be damned.
Up Mt. Kilimanjaro
Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro, plays a vital role in Chagga life as its slopes provide proper soil, moisture, and weather for the farming that has sustained them for centuries.
A few thousand feet up the climate becomes a cool and wet rainforest.
The fertile ground means they use much less land, which has shaped their lifestyles drastically when compared to the tribes living in the hot, arid desert below.
As we climbed the massive mountain, OK only half way up, we encountered even better examples of the family clusters of farms.
These hillside versions are more secluded than the groups down in the village of Rau, and incorporated the small, terraced fields that are more representative of the old manner of Chagga farming.
While almost of our time in Tanzania was spent in the area populated by the Chagga people, once we finished teaching and refurbishing our classroom in Rau, we spent a few days on safari in the region to the west of Kilimanjaro which is dominated by the Maasai people.
It was remarkable how completely their customs and traditions differ from the Chagga living only a few miles away.
While working at the school, were moved by a little one who had a tiny ball of rice. Instead of eating it by herself, she shared with many other children.
When we related to Mama Simba what we had witnessed, she explained to us the concept of chakula ni mavi - food is nothing; remember what is important.
Food is always shared and given freely.
A Chagga apology: Local legend has it that if anyone offers this
to someone they have wronged, the slighted party is expected
to forgive and forget.
Before leaving Tanzania we met with our host family again.
This time Robert was at work in the capital city of Dodoma, so Andrew asked if we would like to meet some of his friends.
We walked to his favorite watering hole and had a great time drinking a few beers and talking with these young men. (Kilimanjaro, our favorite Tanzanian brew, and not just for their slogan: If You Can’t Climb It, Drink It.)
All of our new friends were fresh from university and anxiously eyeing what lay ahead in life.
In the course of the conversation they learned that we had lived in Nashville, and that had David played music there.
Immediately the discussion took a surprising turn to old American Country songs.
One of our
friends family members, Richard, knew tons of hits from back in the ’70s and ‘80s, so the walk back through the village became a jovial sing-along of Don Williams, Dolly Parton, and Kenny Rogers tunes.
You got to know when to hold ‘em Know when to fold ‘em… Islands in the stream, that is what we are… Livin’ on Tulsa time, livin’ on Tulsa time…
By the time we made it to homebase we were all laughing till it hurt.
A cross cultural, and generational, connection if there ever was one.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
A big thank you to Discover Corps for providing this moving cross-cultural opportunity so we can share their good work. As always, all opinions are our own.
See our Tanzanian adventure from the very beginning
See more about our time working at the school
Looking for more Chagga culture? Check out how the stunning batik silhouettes are made
Click to see all of our adventures in Africa!
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